While we were shopping at Target recently, we wandered into the Back to School aisle with our two young sons.
A man standing by his half-filled cart was staring at a sheet of paper. I paid him no mind — after all, it is back to school season and we were all busy getting the things we need. But then he turned and sheepishly smiled at us.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“You help me?”
Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, he and I hunted the aisles, translating what he needed for his son — pencils, folders, composition notebooks, dividers, pencil sharpeners, erasers, and so much more.
“My wife is out of town,” he said as he sighed. “Sorry to bother you.”
Each time he apologized, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “It’s OK. It’s OK.”
My time with him reminded me of what happened last week in our city at Goodwill, when we met an Iraqi woman and her family in the parking lot. My oldest son gave her a hug, and she began to weep for the grandson that is still in Iraq. She wept for her daughter who is still in Iraq, she wept for herself, for the short one month she’s been in the United States.
There was nothing for me to do in that moment but recognize that her humanity and my humanity are made to see each other, feel each other, embrace each other. There were no dividing lines or political views or religious dogmas to get in the way. There were simply two families grieving with one another that the world is not always as it should be.
We talk and preach and type a lot about being human to one another, about ministering to one another — but often, face to face, we are too distracted by, seemingly nothing, to notice one another.
After helping find school supplies, I wanted to invite the man’s family to my home for dinner and ask what their life has been like — all the ways they’ve known joy, love, hardship. But sometimes, all we get is 10 minutes in the Back to School aisle at Target.
The gospel, if followed, leads us to the people who are standing wide-eyed in the aisle of the store asking for help. It takes us to the uncomfortable parts of ourselves, takes us out of our privilege into the world of another person who is simply trying to make a way in our country.
We cannot assume that all immigrants or refugees need our help, that they are not strong — because they are. Their strength has so much to teach us.
But we can be ready and willing to lend a hand and speak truth over them, to be a place of solace, to fight systems that deem them less than.
We make our way toward the gospel by spending time with people that are different than us.
We make our way toward the gospel by creating space for people to be comfortable enough to ask for help.
We make our way toward the gospel by fighting for the oppressed and against forms of oppression.
And when we make it to the grace of the gospel, it doesn’t let us down, and the words of Jesus from Matthew 25 call out ever stronger:
“… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We’ve heard these words before, but if we can reframe them to our time and place, for modern-day America, maybe the words of Jesus meet us and push us into places we’ve not gone before.
“… for I was shopping in Target and you helped me find what I needed, I was tired and you gave me someone to talk to, I was alone and you called me friend, I was afraid and you reminded me that humans are good and loving, I was losing health care and you fought for me … just as you did it to the immigrants and refugees, the oppressed and afraid, you did it to me.”
May we be just as careful with our real-life actions as we are with our online actions, and may the fruit that we bear in this day in this country be fruit that calls out oppression and gathers those that are oppressed closer to us for the sake of the gospel of Jesus, who knew compassion and walked with those no one else would walk with.
Because all children need school supplies, health care, safe homes, a good education, and the chance to be whoever they want to be, wherever they want to be.
That, as we say, is the American way.
But really, it’s not.
It’s the way of Jesus and the Kingdom of God, and may that be our guide in everything we do and in everything that we stand for.